Many have suggested that the departure of the Expos was proof that Montreal was never a baseball town. Others have gone so far as to question whether the game of baseball was ever truly part of Quebec culture. Those people may also suggest that the sport of baseball was an American pastime, with no deep roots in Quebec and that the sport was followed for the most part by Anglophones. In reality, baseball and more specifically professional baseball, have roots in Montreal going back to the 19th century. And in terms of numbers, attendance at professional baseball games in Montreal has always been predominantly francophone.
To begin our look back at Montreal’s pro-baseball past, we have to go back to the late 1800s, and more specifically, 1897. That is when the Rochester Brownies of the Eastern League moved to Montreal and were renamed the Jingos. The team changed their name to the Montreal Royals in 1901. The Jingos and then the Royals played at Atwater Park. Atwater Park stood where Alexis Nihon Plaza is today. The Royals played in the International League between 1912 and 1917, and the franchise faced many challenges during that time period. Montreal lost the franchise following the 1917 season.
So for over a decade, Montreal had no baseball. In 1928, a group of local businessmen worked together to land an International League club. They were set on resurrecting the Royals. That group was led by former Major League Baseball executive George Stallings, Montreal politician and attorney Athanase David and businessman, Ernest Savard. They purchased the International League’s New Jersey franchise for about a quarter of a million dollars and transferred it to Montreal.
By then, Atwater Park was out of commission, and it was clear that a new stadium had to be built. Delorimier Stadium would be constructed in a matter of only a few months. It would be located on Ontario Street East at the corner of De Lorimier Avenue. The 20,000 seat stadium would house the Royals for their entire second incarnation. It was also the home of the Montreal Alouettes from 1946 to 1953. One of the new team and stadium investors was Charles E. Trudeau, father of future Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
The new Royals were very successful. Their position as the AAA affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers meant that immensely talented players would pass through town on their way up to the big leagues. Duke Snider, Chuck Connors, Don Drysdale, Roy Campanella, Walter Alston, and Tommy Lasorda were just a few of the big names that spent time in Montreal.
But the most famous person to ever wear a Montreal Royals uniform was Jackie Robinson. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31st, 1919, in Cairo Georgia. His father left the family in 1920. His mother then moved him and his four older brothers and sisters to Pasadena California.
Robinson excelled at sports while in high school. In addition to track and field and tennis, he played football, basketball and of course, baseball. Robinson continued to pursue sports while attending Pasadena Junior college. After graduating from Pasadena in 1939, he moved on to UCLA, where he went on to have much success in athletics. That is also where he met his future wife Rachel.
Jackie Robinson would leave UCLA before graduating to take a job with the National Youth Administration. He would be drafted into the army in 1942. Robinson was court-marshalled in 1944 because he had refused to move to the back of an army bus. The court martial derailed his chances of being sent overseas. He received an honorary discharge in 1944.
After leaving the military, Robinson accepted a job as athletic director at Sam Huston College, in Austin, Texas. While at that college, he accepted an offer to play professional baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs, of the Negro Leagues. In 1945, the Boston Red Sox held a tryout for black players at Fenway Park. Robinson had dreams of playing in the major leagues and attended. It turned out that the event was nothing more than a publicity stunt, and those who showed up were subjected to racial slurs from Boston management.
Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey was serious about wanting to sign a black player. He went about scanning the Negro Leagues for a candidate. Rickey would decide on Jackie Robinson. He eventually met with Robinson to discuss a possible assignment to the Dodger minor league club, the Montreal Royals. Rickey and Robinson had a long discussion about what it would mean and how much abuse would be thrown Robinson’s way. The Dodger GM warned Robinson that he had to in his words, “turn the other cheek” to the abuse he was about to face. On October 23rd, 1945, Branch Rickey announced to the baseball world that Jackie Robinson would be coming to Montreal in 1946.
Branch Rickey believed that Montreal was the perfect city to begin the integration process, and he was proven correct. Where Robinson had faced terrible hostility south of the border, Montreal baseball fans appeared to be very much on his side. The Royals drew over a million fans to Delorimier Stadium in 1946. Led by Robinson, the Royals would capture the Little World Series that year and were the talk of baseball. Of course, Jackie Robinson would take the next step in his historic journey, when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Major Leagues the next spring. He would have a successful ten year career with the Dodgers. But the stress would take a toll on Jackie Robinson. He began to deal with serious health problems and died from heart disease and complications of diabetes in 1972. He was only 53 years old.
A statue of Jackie Robinson, by artist Jules Lasalle can now be found outside the rotunda entrance to Olympic Stadium. In 2011, a commemorative plaque was also unveiled at Jackie and Rachel Robinson’s former Montreal home on de Gaspe Avenue.
The Montreal Royals would win 7 championships from 1939 through to 1960. However, attendance began to decrease toward the end of the 1950s. In 1960, the Dodgers announced they were ending their affiliation with Montreal. The fact that they were now located on the west coast in Los Angeles was also likely a key factor in their decision. The Royals would arrange a new big league affiliation with Minnesota but the franchise would be still be transferred to Syracuse in time for the 1961 season. The Royals became the present-day Syracuse Chiefs.
De Laurimier Stadium was eventually torn down. A school now occupies the land where the old ballpark used to stand. A stone at the corner of Ontario and Delorimier indicates the history of the site and houses another plaque commemorating Jackie Robinson.
With the Royals’ departure, Montreal was left with no professional baseball for the first time in decades. Towards the end of the 1960s, some influential Montrealers, including Mayor Jean Drapeau began talking about baseball’s return to the city. This time however, they believed Montreal deserved to be in the Major Leagues.
A man who spent nearly a decade trying to get baseball back in Montreal was city councillor Gerry Snyder. Years later, Snyder would also have a hand in the organization of the Olympic games and in bringing a Formula 1 race to town. Gerry Snyder had owned a sporting goods store on Queen Mary Road and was involved with amateur sports around the city for decades. He then began a career in municipal politics. Snyder would spend 25 years at City Hall and was Jean Drapeau’s right-hand man for much of that time.
Gerry Snyder met with Major League officials during baseball’s winter meetings in Mexico in 1967. The National League was looking to expand, and among the people on the expansion committee was Dodger president Walter O’Malley. O’Malley was a big fan of Montreal as a baseball city, having seen first-hand the success of the Royals. On May 27th, 1968, it was O’Malley who announced that Major League Baseball would be expanding to San Diego and to Montreal. The teams would begin play in 1969.
So against all odds, Major League Baseball was coming to Canada. Right away, the people who won the franchise began to face serious obstacles. The problems began when their major financial backer, Jean-Louis Lévesque, withdrew his support from the project. Never one to give up, Gerry Snyder turned to Seagram’s Charles Bronfman to take over. Bronfman would take a controlling interest in the team. Another small group of investors would join him. Ex-Major League player and executive John McHale was recruited to become team president and Jim Fanning was hired as GM. The two would have the daunting task of building the on-field organization in only a matter of months.
Another big problem facing the new franchise was were they would play. Way before the Big Owe was ever conceived of, MLB had been assured that eventually, Montreal would build a domed stadium much like the Astrodome in Houston. That was one of the main reasons the franchise was given the go ahead. In the mean time though, the team needed somewhere to play. Soon it became clear that Delormier Stadium, the Autostade and Molson Stadium were each out of the question. The National League was so concerned about the stadium situation that they threatened to revoke the franchise during the summer of 1968. Then, mayor Drapeau got an idea. It just could be that an existing small city park might be the answer.
Jarry is a neighbourhood park in the Villeray district. It had been named after Raoul Jarry, who was a Montreal city councillor. A 3000 seat baseball stadium was built there in 1960. Drapeau, National League president Warren Gilles and the Expos ownership decided that it just might be possible to enlarge Jarry into a stadium that could host Major League baseball temporarily. That, until the promised new domed stadium was built. In another race against the clock, Jarry was given a makeover and its seating was expanded to nearly 30,000 in time for opening day 1969.
Then there was the question of what to name the team. Royals had already been taken by Kansas City. The new team name had to be something that worked in both official languages. In the end, the name Expos became the choice of club officials. It would recognize the highly successful and defining world’s fair that had been held in Montreal in 1967.
When it came to assembling the on-field talent, an expansion draft was held for the Padres and Expos on October 14th, 1968. The Padres won the first pick and chose Ollie Brown from San Francisco. The first player selected as a member of the Montreal Expos was Many Mota, from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Expos’s second selection was Mac Jones from Cincinnati. The team would fill out their 60 man roster and make a few deals before the start of their inaugural season. Among the trades made was the acquisition of Rusty Staub. Staub would become a Montreal sports icon. Finally, the Expos hired former Phillies’ skipper Gene Mauch to be their first manager.
After competing in their inaugural Spring Training, the new Montreal franchise played their first regular-season game on April 8th, 1969 at Shea Stadium in New York. Of course, there was a nice contingent of Montrealers who made the trip up to New York, including mayor Drapeau and other dignitaries. Prior to the game, the Canadian National Anthem was played for the first time at a Major League ballpark.
The Expos defeated the eventual 1969 World Series Champion Mets by a score of 11-10. The first Expo to bat was Maury Wills. He was struck out by Tom Seaver. A few batters later, Bob Baily collected the franchise’s first ever hit: a double to right field. Dan McGinn would hit the Expos’ first ever home run in the 4th inning. Don Shaw got the win and Carroll Sembera collected the Expos’ first-ever save.
A parade was held through the streets of downtown Montreal before the Expos’ first home game. The Expos played the first Major League game played on Canadian soil on April 14th, 1969. Over 29,000 fans packed into the newly expanded Jarry Park to watch the Expos defeat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7.
The early years of the franchise were highly successful ones at the gate, even if wins were scarce. Players connected with fans in ways that are rarely seen anymore. The intimacy of Jarry and the fact that players had not yet attained monstrous salaries were two of the main the reasons for that. And there was no bigger Expo star during those early years than Rusty Staub. Staub was one of the first Expos to connect with the community above and beyond his on the field duties. He even learned a little French. Staub would be traded in 1972. Although the trade might have made baseball sense, it understandably did not resonate well with fans. Staub would be re-acquired by the Expos during the 1979 season. His first plate appearance at Olympic Stadium that year resulted in perhaps the most dramatic, emotional and prolonged standing ovation in the team’s history.
Aside from some brief moments of glory, like Bill Stoneman’s two no-hitters and an unlikely pennant race in 1973, the Expos struggled mightily on the field during their time at Jarry. But it didn’t seem to matter. They were becoming a fixture in the community, and on the airwaves from coast-to-coast in Canada. By the mid-1970s, the franchise was slowly developing a young core of star prospects that were about to make the jump to the major leagues. The Expos played their last games at Jarry Park on September 22nd, 1976. On that day, they dropped both ends of a doubleheader to Philadelphia.
Olympic Stadium was the promised modern stadium the Expos had been waiting for, minus the dome. Incredibly, the stadium had been constructed with no input from Expo team officials nor with any baseball usage in mind. The Big Owe, as it would be named by the late Montreal radio legend Ted Tevan, would open its doors for baseball on April 15th, 1977. A crowd of over 57,000 were on hand to see the Expos lose 7-2 to the Phillies. The facility was new, state-of-the-art and of major-league calibre. It was however, a shocking departure from Jarry Park. Gone was the intimacy. In its place was a gigantic concrete bowl.
You could say that pro baseball in Montreal reached its high point during the early 1980s. Not only were the Expos finally contending, but just as important, attendance at Olympic Stadium ranked amongst the highest in baseball. The franchise appeared to be solidly established in Montreal, and on television and on radio, from coast-to-coast in Canada. Some young stars like Gary Carter actually made their off-season homes in Montreal and were fixtures in the community. At that time, the idea that the franchise might one day leave town was unthinkable.
The culmination of the early 80s success came in 1981, when the team finally made post-season. 1981 was an unusual season. Players walked off the job on June 12th, and the strike wiped out a good portion of the schedule. When play resumed in August, it was decided that the season would be split in two halves. The Phillies had been in first place in the National League East when the strike began, and took the first half crown. The Expos had finished in third.
The Expos would finish first in the second half. Like for so many other crucial Expo moments, the team clinched the second half title at New York’s Shea Stadium. Following the victory, Expo outfielder Warren Cromartie waved a Canadian flag to the contingent of Expo fans who had made the trip up to New York. It became one of the most celebrated moments in the franchise’s history.
The Expos would face Philadelphia in a playoff series to determine who would go to the National League Championship Series. The Expos would win that series 3 games to 2. Finally, a World Series appearance seemed within reach. The Expos would play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. A series they would lose three games to two in a heartbreaking deciding game at Olympic Stadium.
That infamous game would become known as “Blue Monday”, for two main reasons. First of all, the game was played on Monday, October 19th. It had originally been scheduled for the day before, but was cancelled because of rain. Ironically, the weather eventually cleared up and the game could have been played. Instead it was held on a cool and dreary afternoon in Montreal with a much smaller crowd than would have attended the day before. And back to that name… It was Dodger Rick Monday’s solo home run off of Expo ace Steve Rogers in the 9th that gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. Rogers had been brought in by manager Jim Fanning to start the 9th . He had retired the first two batters, but couldn’t do the same with the Dodger outfielder. The Expos got two men on with two outs in their half of the 9th, but couldn’t score. No-one at the Big Owe that afternoon could have imagined that the franchise would never see another playoff game.
The team began very strong in 1989, taking a lead in their division into mid-season. Owner Charles Bronfman desperately wanted to win that year and the team pulled off a big deal. They got star pitcher Mark Langston from the Mariners. In return they gave up a young Randy Johnson. Little did they know… But they wanted to win in 1989, as the future surely would be brighter following a post-season appearance. Unfortunately, after an initial jolt, the team collapsed and finished the season with a .500 record.
From that point on, the franchise’s off-field fortunes would begin to overshadow the team‘s on-field exploits.
By 1990, Charles Bronfman had had enough. He wanted to sell the club. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no local takers. From then on, speculation about the team’s relocation would become an annual event.
Eventually, team president Claude Brochu managed to put together a local ownership consortium to keep the team in Montreal. It was this group that would lead the franchise for the rest of the next decade. One of the key elements in getting the consortium aboard was a promise to limit their operational investment, most notably payroll. With skyrocketing salaries, the Expos could simply not spend a lot of money. They would have to build from within in cycles of talent. Fortunately, they had maintained one of the best developmental and scouting systems in baseball. After a disastrous 1991 season, in which even Olympic Stadium crumbled, the first group of young talent arrived in earnest in 1992. Suddenly the team was back in contention. Felipe Alou was hired in 1992 and became an iconic figure in Montreal sports circles. It should be noted that Alou had initially been named as interim manager only.
One significant off-field blunder would cost the franchise dearly in the 1990s. Still under Bronfman’s ownership, the Expos had signed away the Southern Ontario TV market to the Blue Jays. From then on, it would become excessively difficult to get Expo games aired on Canadian TV. Broadcasters were reluctant considering they could not air most games in Canada’s largest population centre. That was just the start of a series of media and marketing moves that would eventually all but eliminate over the air broadcasts in English. The English radio network also began to disappear, as the franchise began to focus away from the national market, looking regionally instead.
But on the field, things were looking up. The Expos participated in an exciting pennant race in 1993, but fell short. During the off-season Expo GM Dan Duquette pulled off what at the time was a very controversial trade. He sent fan-favourite DeLino DeShields to Los Angeles for a skinny young pitcher named Pedro Martinez. Duquette then quit to join the Red Sox. By mid-1994, miraculously, the Expos had assembled the best team in baseball.
But the timing couldn’t have been worse. Players walked off the job on August 12th in protest of a proposed salary cap. It seemed unthinkable that an entire season could be wiped away, but it was. On the day the strike began, the Expos seemed destined to make post-season for the first time since 1981. They had a record of 74-40 and a 6 ½ game lead in their division. They were also on pace to have their best ever season at the gate.
It was Expos managing partner Claude Brochu who announced the cancellation of the season in September. At the time, he called it short-term pain for long-term gain. As the local consortium had made clear from the start, they were not willing to spend the money necessary to keep the 1994 team together. When the strike finally ended in the spring of 1995, it only took a few days for Expo General Manager Kevin Malone to unload the core of the team. As far as the issues that caused the strike, nothing had been solved. Attendance plummeted throughout MLB in 1995, but the Expos still managed to draw respectable numbers all things considered. That, despite having a poor season on the field.
A few more magical trades brought the team back into contention again by 1996, and they drew 1.6 million to the Big Owe. Pedro Martinez would go on to become the Expos’ only Cy Young Award winner in 1997. Of course, that meant he would be traded away by 1998. But the wind of change was coming, and it wasn’t a good one. During the 1990s, professional sports began a renewal of their facilities. It was thought that the number one way to raise badly-needed revenues, particularly for so-called small-market franchises, was to build a new stadium. Across North America, new ballparks were popping up almost everywhere, and almost always funded in some way by governments.
In 1997, the Expos would make their first pitch for a new stadium of their own.
It began with a lavish press conference where Expos’ president Claude Brochu unveiled the preliminary mock-up of the proposed new stadium. The park was to be built within proximity of the then Molson Centre at the corner of Peel and Notre Dame. The location was thought to be perfect for both automobile access and public transportation. The design included a possible retractable rain cover. The estimated price of construction was pegged at around $240 million dollars, although some have since claimed that figure was merely a starting point, and that the actual price would have been much higher.
It became clear from then on that the building of the new park would be tied to the team’s survival in Montreal. It also became clear that Brochu expected government involvement in the project. Lucien Bouchard was Premier at the time and the PQ was in full deficit-reduction mode. Hospitals had been closed and some saw investing in a baseball stadium a waste of tax payer’s money. Brochu appeared to have a more sympathetic ear in then finance minister Bernard Landry, or so it appeared. Landry still towed the party line about stadiums vs. hospitals. Any proposed government financing ideas were nixed by Lucien Bouchard.
Quebec eventually agreed to guarantee a loan, but nothing more. Meanwhile, the Expos secured a lease on their desired piece of land and were able to sell naming rights to a large brewery for a significant amount of money. Again, cynics pointed to that as being nothing more than a publicity stunt for the company in question. Finally, the Expos began to sell seat licenses and so-called bricks to fans who wanted to invest in the ballpark. Throughout the entire process, Claude Brochu was vilified by many and his true intentions were continually brought into question.
By 1999, the money to go ahead with the project was simply not there. It looked as if the team would be sold to American interests before long. But the Expos were about to get one more chance, or so it seemed. By the end of the year, Claude Brochu was bought out by the remaining consortium and a new general partner was brought in. At first he was a man of mystery that no-one in Montreal had ever heard of.
Jeffrey Loria was an art dealer from New York City. He had previously owned a minor league club and was desperate to buy a Major League team. He had gained the confidence of the remaining local ownership as the man who could save baseball in Montreal. In December of 1999, Loria and his stepson David Samson were introduced to Montrealers in a memorable and positive press conference. They were joined by members of the consortium and new investor Stephen Bronfman. It appeared that perhaps the franchise could be saved after all. Soon after, Loria was approved by Major League Baseball and the New York art dealer made public his revised plans for a new stadium.
But it would only take a few months before it became clear that all was not well within Montreal ownership circles nor between Loria and the media. By opening day 2000, the club was unable to reach broadcasting deals for television and for English radio. Last-minute negotiations led to a French radio deal. Canadian broadcasters were refusing to pay the market value that Loria sought. And for the most part, they were not willing to pay any rights fees at all. When the 2000 season began, now hall-of-fame broadcaster Dave Van Horne was relegated to calling games on the Internet. The team was blacklisted from television both over-the-air and cable in both official languages. That lack of exposure was an ominous sign of the gloom ahead.
Within the Expos’ boardrooms, Loria had made a cash call that was refused. According to their agreement any such refusal would lead to Loria taking control of the team. Not long after, Loria returned deposits for seats and bricks, gave up the land and seemingly gave up on Montreal. At the same time, the team struggled mightily on the field and at the gate.
By 2001, all had unravelled. Eventually, even Felipe Alou was fired. Following the season, in a bizarre twist of events, the owner of the Florida Marlins purchased the Boston Red Sox and Jeffrey Loria ended up with the Marlins. On his way out, Loria took along with him a good part of what had been Expo infrastructure and personnel. Major League Baseball then took over control of the Montreal franchise.
The next three seasons were painful for what was left of the fan base. The odds had never been so stacked up against the Expo franchise. There were no new potential local owners, no new stadium project on the table, no broadcast revenue, and last, but not least, a 69 cent Canadian dollar made operating a professional sports franchise in Canada very difficult. And if that weren‘t enough, Major League Baseball was making it clear that the franchise would end up relocating, no matter the team’s performance and no matter how many people showed up at the stadium. It got so bad that Major League Baseball threatened to eliminate the franchise altogether along with the Minnesota Twins.
2004 was about as bad as it could get for Expo fans. For the first time, all hope had been lost. It seemed inconceivable that the franchise could return to Montreal in 2005 and play another season under the conditions they had faced since the turn of the millennium. Still, when the announcement of the move to Washington was made on September 29th, it stunned Montreal sports fans. It was on that very night that the Expos played their final game at Olympic Stadium. In a sad twist of irony, they would lose 9-1 to the Florida Marlins, complete with David Samson in the in the crowd. Over 31,000 people were on hand for that sombre evening. Plastered on the outfield wall during that final game was a sign that read 1994: Best team in baseball. For Expo fans, the recognition, as unofficial and irrelevant as it was, did little to ease the pain. The Expos played their final game as a Montreal franchise on October 3rd at Shea Stadium in New York, where it had all began 35 years earlier. They also lost that game by a score of 8-1.
The Nationals, as they have been renamed, have been playing in Washington since the 2005 season. In 2008, they inaugurated a new state-of-the-art ballpark - one that eluded the Expo franchise during their 35 years in Montreal. Nationals Park cost over $600 million dollars to construct, most of that publicly financed. As of 2011, no players remain from the Montreal days, and the Nationals have yet to record a winning season. As for Montreal, there was little if any political reaction to the Expos’ departure at any level. That held particularly true when it came to Montreal’s City Hall and Mayor Gerald Tremblay. There are few lasting remnants of the team’s existence and Olympic Stadium now sits empty for most of the year.
Even prior to the Expos departure many city of Montreal baseball diamonds were being converted into soccer fields. There were fears that the Expos’ departure would hurt baseball leagues in Quebec, but they have managed to survive. The Quebec City Capitales have been very successful and have been drawing good crowds in the Can-Am League.
Since the Expos left Montreal in 2004, there has been much nostalgia about the team, especially on the Internet. A Facebook page dedicated to the team had no fewer than 100,000 members as of the summer of 2011.
In recent years, there have been rumblings about the possibility of bringing a minor league baseball team to the Montreal area. In the summer of 2011, there were rumours, emanating from former Expo broadcaster Rodger Brulotte that a group of local investors were interested in bringing Major League Baseball back to Montreal. Whether or not there is serious interest remains to be seen.
Major League baseball in Montreal lasted for nearly four decades before its untimely demise. There had been professional baseball in this city since the late 19th century. Montreal started off as a successful minor league city. The Royals entertained generations of Montrealers and played a historic role as Jackie Robinson’s first stop on his way to the major leagues. When the Royals departed, it left a void, but Montreal was thriving and was ready to become Major League.
The Expos left their fans with more heartaches than highpoints during their 35 year existence, but it didn’t matter. No matter the result at the end of the season, the Expos would return each spring, and everything seemed possible again. Eventually, terrible timing and terrible ownership decisions would cost the team its very existence. When the spring of 2005 came along, there was no redemption - there was just nothing… Long-suffering fans of the Montreal Expos are now left with their deep-rooted memories, a nagging sense of loss and disappointment, and the frustration of what could have been…